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Gardening for the Chesapeake: Giving Japanese Barberry the Heave-ho

Give up thorns and thugs for terrific natives.

Possumhaw Viburnum Berries
Possumhaw Viburnum Berries at Lauren's Garden Service and Native Plant Nursery

Across urban, suburban and even rural landscapes of our Chesapeake watershed, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) was planted along foundations of homes, grouped in flower beds and used as a specimen plant. It is durable, sports intense fall color and grows easily in all sorts of soils including clay. In fall, barberry color turns to moody deep reds and maroons. There are many culitvars of this plant as well. Some have color variations such as a chartreuse foliage, some are variegated and some have no thorns.

invasive shrub Japanese barberry
Japanese barberry (photo from shutterstock)

Japanese barberry is fairly well known to be invasive in many parts of the U.S. including the Chesapeake watershed. Barberry is spread by those bright red seeds. It was first planted at the New York Botanical Garden in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant. It has now taken hold in forests and wetlands - not a good thing.

If you have this in your garden or on your property, it is one of those plants really worth removing as soon as you can. Wait for a soaking rain to make digging it out easier. I always feel like it is helpful to prune it back some before digging to minimize your interaction with those thorns! Please dispose of this plant in your trash as opposed to a compost heap to avoid further spread.

The good news as always: there are lots of easy to find native substitutes. While the middle of summer is not the ideal time to plant, with consistent attention to watering - a good soaking at least once a week, it can be successfully done.

Substitutes with Spectacular Red Berries

If you are looking for a substitute with berries in fall and winter, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) in full sun, fits the bill. Winterberries are easy to grow, can be pruned as a focal point vase shaped shrub or small trees or grouped to form a hedge and feed birds in late fall through winter. The berries are a beautiful sight in late fall and early winter. If you have not grown winterberry, this is a spoiler alert. A flock of robins can eat all of those berries is about 15 minutes on a winter day. And...of course, that is the whole point!

Like barberry, winterberry grows in full sun and part shade but produces more berries in sun. Also, please note during the summer, winterberry is fairly inconspicuous. Very small white flowers precede the berries. In a small garden like ours, these shrubs make good fillers in the back of a bed and then once the berries appear and the leaves drop, it just shines. Second note, you need one male winterberry to pollinate the females which bear the berries. It may sound complicated but it is not as most nurseries sell both and they are typically marked male and female. They should be located within about 50 feet of one another. The male plants are smaller and pretty easy to tuck into an out of the way spot.

Another native with great berries is red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). This easy to grow shrub also does well in full sun to part shade in a range of soils. Along with the berries, red chokeberry does have pretty stunning fall color as well as a nice bloom of white flowers in late spring. This grows tall, to about 8 feet or so, and about 4 feet wide.

Substitutes with Deep Red Fall Color

Maybe you are taken in by the range of deep maroon fall colors of barberry. If you are looking to replicate that color, you might try a native possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum). The fall color range is stunning and rolls through green, then deep reddish pink and then maroon. The straight species of this shrub is large, growing to 12'. There is a commonly available smaller cultivar viburnum nudum 'winterthur' that grows to 6'.

Substitutes with evergreen foliage

inkberry witnerbery amsonia magnolia
inkberry and winterberry shrubs along fence line

Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is an excellent evergreen substitute for full sun or part shade. Inkberry is a reliable evergreen shrub and can be used as a hedge, foundation plant or a low screen. Sometimes, it can take two plants to make up for one. Let's say you want the berries and an evergreen. Try alternating inkberry with winterberry as along this fence line.

Where to find these shrubs? Kollar Nursery in Pylesville, Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore and Bona Terra Nursery in Anne Arundel County, also serving Washington D.C., are native plant nurseries with these plants in stock. Large garden centers often carry winterberry and inkberry and sometimes chokeberry and possumhaw.

The University of North Carolina Extension Service notes there is actually a native barberry (Berberis canadensis) though very rare. I have never seen it for sale. Alas, it does have thorns. Just one more reason to go with one of the fab alternative shrubs!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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